Can watching 'good' television can make you a better person?


According to researchers working out of the University of Oklahoma, “good” (read: critically-acclaimed) television can actually make you a better (read: empathetic) person.

Working from previous research that found that award-winning literary fiction ultimately increased peoples’ ability to embody “theory of the mind,” Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes set out to see if the same held true for quality television.

Theory of the mind describes a person’s natural tendency to project themselves onto others, enabling them to better understand someone else’s perspective and emotions.

Traditional thinking says that theory of mind should only work between two real people. What Black and Barnes found was that mentally connecting with fictional characters actually made people better at connecting with other, real folks. Moreover, the more “prestigious” the show, the better study participants were able to demonstrate theory of mind.

One-hundred participants were split into two groups and asked to watch one of two different kinds of television shows. One group was screened an episode of high-quality, fictional television (either The West Wing or Mad Men) while the other was shown a non-fictional documentary (Shark Week programming or How The Universe Works.)

After watching their respective programs, participants were tasked with interpreting others’ emotions by looking at photos of their eyes. Participants from the group of fiction-viewers routinely out-performed their non-fictional counterparts.

“These results suggest that film narratives, as well as written narratives may facilitate the understanding of others’ minds,” Black and Barnes published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts.

Though it would be easy to count the study’s findings as a win for the pro-binge-watching crowd, it’s important to point out that the researchers’ methodology comes with a couple caveats.

Because programs like Mad Men and The West Wing revolve around emotional situations in which actors are constantly emoting, it stands to reason that a person watching those programs would be more attuned to human emotions in an exercise.

The documentaries participants were given to watch didn’t feature the same kind of emotional anchor as the fiction-viewers were. But that doesn’t mean that a non-fictional documentary about people and their emotions wouldn’t have had the same effect as a fictional program.

Taken at face value, the study comes out in favor of “good” television (as subjective a term as there ever was), but it never actually attempted to measure the effects that “trash” TV might have on peoples’ capacity for empathy. As much as we may be able to learn about others by watching Don Lemon’s face, there’s a chance that we could learn just as much from Kim K’s.

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